Chapel Hill News

Input sought on light-rail decisions

Artist’s concept of a Durham-Orange Light Rail train at a station in downtown Durham near the Durham Station bus depot.
Artist’s concept of a Durham-Orange Light Rail train at a station in downtown Durham near the Durham Station bus depot. Courtesy Triangle Transit

Triangle Transit will update the public and seek feedback this week on the proposed light-rail line between UNC Hospitals and East Durham.

To meet application deadlines for federal money that planners hope will cover half the 17-mile line’s construction costs, several “key decisions” must be made over the next few months, transit planner Patrick McDonough said.

Two involve the route: how to align the tracks across the Little Creek bottomlands in Orange County and New Hope Creek in Durham.

There are also questions of where to put a station near the Duke University and the Durham VA medical centers, and where to put the line’s maintenance shop.

This week’s meetings are:

▪  Wednesday, 4 to 7 p.m. at the Friday Center on N.C. 54 in Chapel Hill, with presentations at 4:15, 5:15 and 6:15;

▪  Thursday, 4 to 7 p.m., at the Durham Station bus depot on Pettigrew Street, with presentations at 4:15, 5:15 and 6:15.

What’s not up for discussion this week is the route through downtown Durham.

That section is still being negotiated with the N.C. Railroad, which owns the rail corridor paralleling Main Street, Mc Donough said. Public meetings on that part of the line are tentatively set for June.

Taken ‘seriously’

The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project was one of two in the nation that the Federal Transit Administration allowed to seek possible funding under its New Starts financing program.

“One is an extension of a Seattle line that carries 40,000 people a day. The other one is us,” McDonough said. “We take that as a signal the federal government takes this project very seriously.”

To stay on track, he said, Triangle Transit and its partner agencies in Durham and Chapel Hill must finish an environmental impact report and settle on the route by the end of February 2016.

Some decisions appear relatively easy, such as the Duke/VA station site.

When planning began, McDonough said, the idea was to put the station at the Fulton Street-Erwin Road intersection, at the Duke Hospital entrance. That, though, presented traffic congestion issues and now two sites are on the table: one at the Duke Eye Center, the other farther east between Trent Drive and Flowers Drive.

Triangle Transit’s analysis finds little to recommend one over the other, except Duke and the VA’s stated preference for Trent/Flowers because of “better management of traffic” and anticipated job growth at its hospital, McDonough said.

Net math important

Other decisions, such as the creek crossings, are more complicated and controversial.

Originally, the line was drawn between Meadowmont and a Leigh Village station between George King and Farrington roads, crossing the Little Creek bottomlands.

That met opposition from environmentalists and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the property and let planners know it would not let the tracks cross federal property.

Now, there are three alternatives: one crossing the creek above the Corps land, the others running near or beside N.C. 54. Their environmental effects are similar, but there are differences in cost projections, travel times and effects on nearby property owners.

The New Hope Creek section, between Patterson Place and South Square, also has three alternatives: one along U.S. 15-501, one south of the road and the third a combination of the other two.

None cross Corps land, but there are differences in travel time, potential ridership, construction and operating costs while all three have similar effects on natural areas.

Five sites are under consideration for a maintenance shop and yard: two along Farrington Road in south Durham, one near Patterson Place, another at the former Pepsi-Cola plant off U.S. 15-501 Bypass and the fifth at Alston Avenue, the line’s eastern end.

A maintenance facility needs 18 to 25 acres, McDonough said, and brings some noise that neighbors may not like. The Alston Avenue site might create jobs in depressed East Durham, but it could also eliminate existing jobs as businesses forced to move.

“Understanding the net math is important,” McDonough said.

Wise: 919-641-5895

Meetings this week

Triangle Transit will hold two meetings this week to update the public on planning for the Durham-Orange Light Rail line and gather public comment.

▪  Wednesday, 4 to 7 p.m. at the Friday Center on N.C. 54 in Chapel Hill, with presentations at 4:15, 5:15 and 6:15;

▪  Thursday, 4 to 7 p.m., at the Durham Station bus depot on Pettigrew Street, with presentations at 4:15, 5:15 and 6:15.

Triangle Transit planners will be on hand for “open house” sessions before and after the formal presentations.

The meetings pertain to environmental studies for the route between UNC Hospitals and Ninth Street in Durham. The route through downtown Durham is still under negotiation and will be the subject of public meetings tentatively scheduled in June.

For more information, see A new route “flyover” video is available at

Questions, comments and concerns may be emailed to

The bottom line: When might trains pull into station?

If Triangle Transit gets another federal go-ahead on routes and environmental concerns, serious engineering for Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project the line could begin in 2016, finish in three years and start construction in 2021.

With that timetable, trains could begin running – every 10 minutes at peak periods, every 20 minutes off peak, every day, in late 2025 or early 2026. When transit planner Patrick McDonough spoke to the Durham City Council recently, though, Councilman Eugene Brown asked for “just a little more insight on where’s the money going to come from.”

When voters in Durham and Orange counties approved a half-cent sales tax for transit, in 2011 and 2012 respectively, construction cost for the line was estimated at $1.37 billion in 2011 dollars. The expectation was that 25 percent of the money would come from the sales tax, 25 percent from the state and half from the federal government.

With inflation, increased construction costs and other factors, the estimate is now more like $1.82 billion, McDonough said. Sales-tax revenue is building up, probably at a rate to allow construction to start in 2021, he said.

If federal transit officials deem the project worthy, that funding will be “mostly when Congress has enough money,” he said. “If anybody has a crystal ball on congressional budgeting, would you share it with us?”

As for the state, McDonough said, Triangle Transit expects some money to be made available for light rail over the next 10 years, but not enough to cover 25 percent.

“We realize there is a gap,” said Durham Mayor Bill Bell, who is chairman of the Triangle Transit board.

“We’ve talked about some alternatives for filling that gap,” Bell said. “I felt more comfortable as a result ... than I’ve felt in a long time. Seriously.”

Staff writer Jim Wise